Tipping Points
Breaking down the biggest plays and decisions from Sunday's closest games.

Tipping Points: Week 16

Michael Thomas
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

With the college football regular season at its end, the NFL shined all weekend in Week 16, producing three riveting games on Saturday and then surprising with a handful of unimportant nail-biters on Sunday. But none of those games could steal the spotlight from the anticipated marquee game on Sunday between the Saints and Titans.

Game of the Week

Saints at Titans

After a Saturday full of compelling games, the Saints-at-Titans contest needed to carry a slate of mostly unimportant matchups in the early Sunday window. It certainly delivered on that excitement. That wasn't a given after the first 10 minutes when the Titans took a 14-0 lead thanks to 40-plus-yard touchdowns by tight end Jonnu Smith and rookie receiver A.J. Brown. But the Saints whittled their way back, pulling to within four points at the half and then scoring a touchdown on three straight drives to start the second half. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Titans trailed 31-21 and had just a 14.6% Game-Winning Chance (GWC), but they had the ball and were advancing toward midfield.

On first down from the Titans' 37-yard line, running back Dion Lewis -- starting in place of an injured Derrick Henry -- couldn't escape from defensive end Cameron Jordan. That put the Titans in an obvious passing situation on second-and-7, and Ryan Tannehill promptly took a sack from about five different Saints defenders. It would have been Tannehill's sixth sack on the day. His season total of 31 sacks doesn't look especially gaudy, but remember he compiled that total in just nine starts. Tannehill has been sacked on 10.4% of his dropbacks, second-most of the 33 quarterbacks with 200 or more such dropbacks behind only rookie Dwayne Haskins. Even behind an offensive line that is top 10 in lowest pressure rate allowed according to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required), Tannehill is holding onto the ball too long. His 2.87-second average time to throw is tied for seventh-highest according to Next Gen Stats.

In this case, Tannehill was bailed out by a defensive holding penalty that not only erased the sack but awarded the Titans a new first down. They just couldn't take full advantage of it. Tannehill threw a beautiful rainbow pass off of his back foot that Corey Davis dove and caught on the left sideline, but Davis' momentum carried him out of bounds before he could touch both of his feet down. Lewis was again stopped at the line. And while Tannehill completed a third-down pass to Sharpe, Patrick Robinson made the tackle 3 yards shy of a new first down. That prompted the Titans to punt just shy of midfield. And while Brett Kern pinned the Saints inside their own 10-yard line, it still gave the Saints a chance on offense to kill some clock with a 10-point lead.

Drew Brees couldn't keep the clock running on first down, throwing back-shoulder to Tre'Quan Smith, who clearly wasn't on the same page. Brees did complete his second-down throw, a screen to Deonte Harris, but the Titans defense read that play perfectly. They dropped Harris at the line of scrimmage and then dropped Brees just shy of a safety at the goal line for a third-down sack. That forced a punt, which Kalif Raymond fielded in Titans territory and wound to the Saints' 42-yard line with 10:42 left in the game.

Practice squad graduate Dalyn Dawkins saw nine carries of his own with Henry out, and he did his best work of the day at the start of this Titans drive. He cut sharply up and out through a hole in the left side of the line to gain 14 yards and then crashed straight up the middle for 9 more. A 4-yard power run produced a new first down, and while Dawkins' fourth effort went down in the backfield, his prior success had advanced the Titans into the red zone. Tannehill took it from there, finding Raymond in the middle of the field to get to the 7-yard line, then completing a third-and-2 pass to Sharpe for a touchdown with a perfect throw high and away from the defender where only Sharpe had a chance to catch it.

The touchdown cut the Titans' deficit to three points and boosted their GWC to 26.2%. But they still needed to make a defensive stop to preserve as much of the remaining 7:20 as they could for their offense. Michael Thomas made that a difficult objective, starting the ensuing Saints drives with his 141st, 142nd, and 143rd catches of the year, the third of which tied him with Marvin Harrison for the most in a single season in NFL history. Those three catches also advanced the Saints into Titans territory and dropped the clock to 5:17. But after a 3-yard Alvin Kamara run, Thomas couldn't come down with his record-setting catch with LeShaun Sims defending closely. Jared Cook then slipped before he could reach a third-and-7 Brees throw. That incompletion brought out the punt team, but in classic Sean Payton fashion, they attempted a fake. That decision worked perfectly, and Taysom Hill hit Justin Hardee in the chest for what should have been a new first down that would have practically ended things. Hardee just forgot to catch the pass.

That reprieve offered the Titans excellent starting field position and quarter-high 38.7% GWC. That looked like it would increase further when Tannehill found Raymond for a 23-yard completion into Saints territory. But just after the catch, safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson hit Raymond in the helmet, seemingly knocking Raymond unconscious briefly and forcing a fumble. Unlike what we have seen on some recent previous big hits, Gardner-Johnson was not flagged for the play, and after a review, the referees maintained their original call on the field that Raymond caught and fumbled the pass rather than failing to complete the catch at all.

That result cut the Titans' comeback chances by more than half to 18.7%, and Brees didn't take long to end even those remote chances. He swung a pass to Kamara for 5 yards and a new first down, exhausting the Titans' second timeout. And then after a 1-yard Kamara run that took the Titans' last timeout, Brees connected with -- who else? -- Thomas for the record-setting 144th time this season.

The catch-and-run was originally ruled a touchdown on the field, but that was reversed to being down at the 1-yard line upon review. But really, that was even worse news for the Titans as it allowed the Saints to drain another minute of clock before Brees did the inevitable and hit Thomas in the end zone for a touchdown.

Now down 38-28 with just 2:10 remaining, the Titans showed some fight. Tannehill dropped a perfect 34-yard pass over Marcus Lattimore that Brown juggled once and then secured before running out of bounds. But that was Tannehill's final completion. He either missed or had tipped consecutive passes to Smith, Anthony Firkser, and Brown, and then on fourth-and-10, Tannehill bought time in the pocket and then threw a Hail Mary into the right side of the end zone. He put excellent loft on the pass so that it came down almost vertically and gave Sharpe a chance to catch his third touchdown of the day. But glued to his hip, Robinson made the defensive play, forced the turnover on downs, and allowed Brees to kneel to end the game.

The Titans defense played well enough to close this game, dropping the Saints offensive DVOA from 52.5% from the first three quarters to -5.5% in the fourth quarter. The unfavorable non-penalized Raymond catch-and-fumble ruling may have cost the Titans this game, but the AFC wild-card tie-breaking scenarios could take the sting out of the loss. With the Steelers also losing to the Jets, the Titans find themselves in the driver's seat for the No. 6 seed in the AFC. The Titans now have a 63.7% chance to hold off the Steelers and secure a playoff berth, and their case could be helped by their Week 17 opponent, the Texans. The Texans can only move from the No. 4 seed to the No. 3 seed if they win and the Chiefs lose to the Chargers next week, so they could lose motivation quickly against the Titans without even a bye week at stake.

The Saints' seeding remains up in the air despite the win. They could still finish first, second, or third in the NFC pending the results of the Packers-Vikings game on Monday night plus next week's 49ers-Seahawks game, among others. Despite that uncertainty, the Saints have to be feeling great after a shocking Seahawks loss helped bump them to an 82.9% chance of a bye and at least one home game in New Orleans as a top-two NFC seed.

The Best of the Rest

Bills at Patriots

With the Bills already locking up a postseason bid and unlikely even with a win to pass the Patriots for an AFC East title, it wasn't clear that this Saturday game would have the excitement that bigger stakes would have brought. But on the Patriots' first drive, Rex Burkhead took a screen pass with space to run. He scampered down the left sideline with Shaq Mason leading the way, and he had just crossed midfield when Jordan Poyer chased him down from behind and punched the ball loose. Micah Hyde recovered the fumble and returned it to the Patriots' 31-yard line. It all took 20 seconds, and the crowd was screaming the entire time. It was a perfect start for the Bills, but Josh Allen couldn't capitalize on the turnover with a touchdown, overthrowing tight end Dawson Knox in the back left corner of the end zone on third-and-7. The Bills settled for a field goal to go up 3-0, a lead the Patriots promptly erased with back-to-back extended drives of 11 and 17 plays of 75 and 81 yards, netting 10 total points. Prior to Saturday, the Bills defense had allowed just 14 drives of 10 or more plays, tied with the Jaguars for second-fewest in football. The Patriots were the only defense that had allowed fewer (10).

It was still 10-3 when the Patriots kept their offense on the field for a fourth-and-1 at the Bills' 41-yard line with 36 seconds left in the first half. Nick Folk had not attempted a field goal from 50-plus yards all season for the Patriots or anywhere since 2017 (he later tried and made a 51-yard attempt but had little room to spare) and the decision to run boosted a the team's GWC by 0.3% compared to a field goal try, but sacrificed 1.0% GWC versus a punt in large part because of the scenario that played out. Tom Brady handed off to N'Keal Harry on a jet sweep, but cornerback Kevin Johnson met Harry in the backfield before he could find the edge. Johnson crashed into Harry's legs, sending Harry head over heels and forcing a Patriots turnover on downs. That didn't leave a lot of time for Allen, but he made it work, throwing over the top to Knox, who secured a 33-yard catch that just missed reaching the end zone upon review. And with six seconds left in the half, Allen faked right and threw back into the left side of the end zone to 320-pound left tackle Dion Dawkins, who deftly caught his second career touchdown on as many targets.

The Patriots nearly extended their lead to two scores early in the third quarter, but a Ben Watson touchdown was overturned by an offensive pass interference penalty on a pick play. The Bills ended up taking a lead on their next drive, with Allen finding John Brown on a 53-yard touchdown reception. It was Brown's only catch on four targets on the day. Likely defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore locked him down in coverage all afternoon. Gilmore entered the game with a 60% coverage success rate (tied for 14th among qualified corners) and allowing just 5.3 yards per target (fifth-best) (subscription required). But on that play, Brown shed Gilmore with a double-move that sent Gilmore to the outside while Brown cut inside. From there, Brown outraced safety Devin McCourty to the end zone, making the score 17-13 in favor of the Bills.

That was the score at the start of the fourth quarter, and while the Patriots were driving and had reached the red zone, Lawson read a misdirecting pitch to Sony Michel and tackled him in the backfield for a 6-yard loss. That set up a second-and-16 from the Bills' 21-yard line. A stop there would likely have forced a field goal and allowed the Bills to retain a one-point lead. But instead, Tom Brady found undrafted rookie receiver Jakobi Meyers for an 11-yard reception that Meyers held onto despite an immediate hit from cornerback Taron Johnson. And then on third-and-5, Burkhead caught a short pass, evaded an attempted tackle by Johnson, and reached out and across the line to gain just before his momentum carried him out of bounds. It was one of several massive Burkhead plays on the day. With Julian Edelman hobbled by myriad injuries (including one to his head on the previously mentioned pick play), Burkhead led all Patriots receivers with 77 yards.

That new first down started the Patriots just 5 yards from the end zone. They seemed certain to punch one in given the general success they had running the ball on the day -- their skill players carried the ball 31 times for 139 yards, good for a 4.5 yards-per-carry average. But neither Michel nor James White gained a yard on first or second down even with the misdirection the second play caused with a direct snap to Mohamed Sanu and eventual read pitch to White. Brady dropped back to pass on third down, and with excellent protection and no open receivers, he rolled to the right and took off for the right corner of the end zone. The 42-year-old Brady has never been swift, but he likely would have beaten defensive tackle Ed Oliver to the end zone if Hyde weren't closing on him from in front. Hyde caused Brady to hesitate, and Oliver crashed into him from behind. That made it fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, and even though it cost them 6.4% GWC compared to a run -- a rare misfire for Bill Belichick, who ranks among the top third in play-calling -- the Patriots settled for a field goal to pull within a point.

Still with 10:45 left on the clock, the Bills couldn't afford to rest on their defensive success. They needed more points. But they certainly didn't get them on their next drive. Devin Singletary was stopped in his tracks on first down by a one-armed tackle from 315-pound defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, and then Allen lost 6 yards on second-down sack. The Bills protected Allen on a third-down dropback, but that extra time couldn't help his receivers get open. Allen eventually unloaded on a deep pass to Brown, but Brown would likely not have caught it even if it hadn't been overthrown, blanketed in coverage by both Gilmore and safety Duron Harmon.

That incompletion and subsequent punt returned the ball to the Patriots with just over nine minutes left in the game, and Brady had success where Allen did not, moving the ball in the fourth quarter. He started his next drive with a slant completion to Edelman (back on the field after clearing concussion protocol), who spun away from one tackle and produced half of his 30-yard reception after the catch. That moved the Patriots into Bills territory, where they went back to their effective ground game. Michel took consecutive carries up the middle for 8, 7, and 6 yards to the Bills' 8-yard line. Burkhead spelled him with a 3-yard carry, and then after a Brady sneak that earned a new first down and a defensive encroachment penalty that advanced the Patriots to within 1 yard of the end zone, Burkhead punctuated the drive with a touchdown run through an attempted Corey Thompson tackle.

Suddenly up five points, Belichick made the more obvious correct decision to try for a two-point conversion. And his play call was beautiful. Brady used a play-action fake to draw Hyde in toward the line, and Edelman wrapped his crossing route just behind him to shed his own defender and come clear in the left side of the end zone.

The Patriots could have made things easier by enforcing a Bills unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on the two-point try rather than the kickoff. But with the unaided conversion, things played out perfectly for the Patriots. And now down seven points with just over five minutes to try to answer, the Bills had fallen to an 8.4% GWC. It looked like the Bills might fade into the night after Singletary started their next drive with another run for no gain, but Allen produced a new first down on the next play, hitting Cole Beasley with a high throw to the left sideline that the undersized Beasley secured with a leap over Jackson. Two plays later, Beasley made another grab, this one in heavy traffic between two defenders to move the Bills to midfield. With Brown taken out of the bulk of the game by Gilmore, Beasley stepped up, producing 108 yards on seven catches. That was more than half of Allen's totals of 13 completions and 208 passing yards on the day.

But while Allen struggled in the air against the No. 1 DVOA pass defense, he did excel on the ground with 43 yards on seven carries. And a first-down scramble here produced 11 of those yards and netted the Bills another new first down at the Patriots' 39-yard line. After an incomplete deep shot, he unloaded quickly to avoid a blitz and hit Beasley for another 7 yards. Singletary crashed into the line and moved the pile to the Patriots' 28-yard line, setting up a fourth-and-1. Allen then carried the ball himself -- increasing the Bills' GWC by 6.0% compared to attempting a field goal -- on a quarterback sneak. He was initially stopped short of the line to gain, but he stayed on his feet and fought off an uncalled defensive facemask before diving forward to the left side of the center to produce that game-saving first down.

That first down was necessary to keep the Bills' hopes alive, but it cost them an injury to their starting center Mitch Morse. The switch to backup Jon Feliciano nearly hurt them immediately with a high snap, but Allen corralled it, dodged Guy, and scrambled forward for 8 more yards. That play would have advanced the Bills to the red zone, but it was erased by an illegal formation penalty that backed the Bills into a difficult first-and-15. But there, Beasley again came through, looping around Jackson and cutting in at the 10-yard line.

With the Bills reaching a first-and-goal with 2:21 still left on the clock, the Patriots started to call their timeouts to preserve time for their offense. But it turns out they wouldn't need it. Allen started the next sequence with a designed run that went nowhere with Jamie Collins and Guy crashing into the line. On second down, Allen had an opportunity to hit Knox in the back of the end zone but overthrew him. And then on third down, Allen took a sack, backing the Bills into a fourth-and-15 and halving their GWC to just 5.4%. He did well to spin and buy time against an all-out blitz, and his throw reached the end zone and at least gave his receiver Beasley a chance. But the 5-foot-8 Beasley was never going to win a jump ball against Jackson. Jackson batted the ball into the dirt, turning the Bills over on downs and allowing Brady to kneel the game to its conclusion.

That result accelerated what was likely to happen anyway, with the Patriots winning the East and all but securing the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye and the Bills earning the top AFC wild card. Chances are good the Bills will have to travel to Houston to play the Texans at the start of the playoffs in two weeks. And although the Bills couldn't cross the finish line in either game against their division rival, their pair of close games has to give them confidence that they can play with and beat any team in the AFC.

Rams at 49ers

Capping a trio of exciting Saturday games, the Rams-49ers contest provided the biggest playoff implications. Even with an 8-6 record, the Rams still had a small chance to rally for a postseason berth. But a win on Saturday was the first of many outcomes they needed to fall in their favor, and they couldn't make that first part happen. They owned a 28-24 lead to start the fourth quarter that could have been bigger if Jared Goff hadn't overlooked linebacker Fred Warner in coverage and thrown a pick-six to him with just 46 seconds left in the first half. They also came close to scoring points on their last drive of the third quarter, advancing to within a yard of midfield before Goff threw too far in front of tight end Tyler Higbee on third-and-11. That incompletion forced a fourth down and Rams punt, which pinned the 49ers back to their 6-yard line.

The 49ers ran the ball to escape the shadow of their end zone, first with new starter Raheem Mostert -- who leads all backs with at least 100 carries with a 26.0% rushing DVOA -- and then Jimmy Garoppolo himself on a scramble for a new first down. The 49ers got back to normal starting field position, but that was as far as they would get. Garoppolo nearly threw an interception to Darious Williams, who had undercut Deebo Samuel, and then took a sack from Dante Fowler and fumbled. The 49ers recovered that fumble and then punted, which set the Rams up with excellent field position at their 43-yard line. Still, that had to feel like a victory for the 49ers on the heels of a pair of almost-turnovers deep in their own territory.

Now with 11:43 left in the game, the Rams were on the verge of their fourth-quarter peak of a 67.9% GWC. A string of first downs and subsequent score would have gone a long way toward a victory and renewed playoff hopes, but Todd Gurley's 8-yard second-down carry gave way to Robert Woods screen that the 49ers read and dropped for a loss. On fourth-and-2, the Rams faked an offensive play with punter Johnny Hekker running up under center -- Hekker, an excellent passer, has completed 13 throws in his career, all for first downs -- but never snapped the ball. That's a shame because either a pass or run would have improved the Rams' GWC by between 0.6% and 0.8% compared to their eventual punt.

The silver lining of the decision was that Hekker -- who is also really good at his primary job -- pinned the 49ers inside their 10-yard line again. But this time, the Rams defense could hold. Garoppolo play-faked a run and hit a wide-open George Kittle 13 yards down the field. Kittle entered the week with 503 yards after the catch, 138 more than Travis Kelce in second place among tight ends. He added 23 more here, breaking a Jalen Ramsey attempted tackle. That moved the 49ers to their 45-yard line, and then Tevin Coleman took them into Rams territory with a 12-yard carry. There, Garoppolo threw a 25-yard pass to backup tight end Ross Dwelley, and Dwelley did his best Kittle impersonation, catching the ball in heavy traffic and then hanging on despite an Eric Weddle hit that was flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty.

The long catch plus the penalty yardage put the 49ers within 10 yards of the end zone. It took them a few more plays, but Garoppolo punctuated the drive by rolling right out of the pocket to avoid pressure and finding Kittle, who split a double-team and came up to the front-right of the end zone for a third-down touchdown.

The touchdown put the 49ers ahead by three at 31-28, but the Rams still had six minutes and six seconds to try to answer. Gurley and Woods set them back in that effort with a pair of carries that netted just 2 total yards, but Goff delivered consecutive completions for 16 and 19 yards that showed off his diverse skill set. The first came quickly against a 49ers blitz, and Goff threw a rope line drive to Brandin Cooks crossing the middle of the field. The second was a slower roll to the right out of the pocket and a touch lob to Higbee down the right sideline. Altogether, the completions advanced the Rams to the 49ers' 38-yard line, but L.A. only gained 4 more yards from there. Pass-rushers Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner forced a throwaway and an errant throw, the second of which safety Marcell Harris should have intercepted but instead dropped. Goff threw underneath on third down with no intent to gain a first down. He simply wanted a handful of yards to make kicker Greg Zuerlein's life easier. And the big-legged Zuerlein delivered with a 52-yard make, avenging an earlier pull from the same distance and pulling the Rams even at 31-31.

It was an effective Rams drive, but it left 2:30 on the clock, plenty of time for Garoppolo and the 49ers offensive to work downfield and answer. That looked unlikely after Garoppolo took a first-down sack and Mostert dropped a second-down screen. But on third-and-16, Garoppolo stepped up in the pocket into the face of pressure and delivered a strike down the middle of the field to Kendrick Bourne. Bourne secured the catch in traffic and then fell forward past the line to gain. It was a back-breaking 18-yard gain, increasing the 49ers' GWC from 52.7% to 75.7%.

That completion kept the 49ers drive alive, but they were still 35 yards out of comfortable field goal range. And Garoppolo extended that effort by taking another sack, this one on second down for a loss of 7 yards. But, amazingly, he converted another third-and-16, this one to Emmanuel Sanders streaking open down the middle of the field for 46 yards.

That second third-and-long completion had an even more dramatic impact, increasing the 49ers' GWC from 58.3% to 93.7%. From there, a 7-yard Tevin Coleman carry was just gravy, setting up an eventual 33-yard chip shot that Robbie Gould drained as time expired.

The No. 8 DVOA Rams defense had three good quarters in them, holding the 49ers to a -27.3% offensive DVOA before the floodgates opened for a 59.9% DVOA 49ers fourth quarter. That collapse ended the Rams' slim playoff hopes and adds more fuel to the theory of a Super Bowl loser's curse.

The 49ers, in contrast, boosted their odds of a No. 1 seed in the NFC to 48.5% with the win. But their road to a Super Bowl could take very divergent paths based on their Week 17 matchup with the division-rival Seahawks in Seattle. With a win, the 49ers earn that No. 1 seed, a bye, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. With a loss, the 49ers fall out of the top spot of the NFC West, forcing them to play on the road, likely in Philadelphia in Round 1.

Giants at Redskins

An incredible week of close finishes required me to cut some deserving games from this week's Tipping Points. And while the games between the Texans and Buccaneers, Steelers and Jets, and Cowboys and Eagles all had greater stakes than those between the Giants and Redskins and Bengals and Cardinals, the former could not compete with the latter in terms of fourth-quarter drama. The Giants-Redskins game had drama throughout, with the teams combining for five touchdowns on the first five possessions of the game. The Giants figured to take control as they built a 28-14 halftime lead and Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins suffered a high ankle sprain on the first play of the third quarter, but former starter Case Keenum played admirably in relief, completing 16 of 22 passes for 158 yards, a touchdown, and no turnovers. The Giants maintained their two-touchdown lead into the fourth quarter -- now at 35-21 -- but the Redskins started that final frame with a Nate Orchard blocked punt.

That set the Redskins offense up in the red zone. Keenum fired a pass in the end zone to standout rookie Terry McLaurin, who could not catch it but did draw a defensive pass interference penalty that advanced the Redskins to the 1-yard line. Once there, the Redskins did the expected thing, handing off to Adrian Peterson who ran in a touchdown for the 111th time of his career, breaking a tie with Walter Payton for fourth-most all time.

Peterson's historic career is one of the few things Redskins fans can celebrate this season. They were still far from celebrating a win this week, down seven points even after the touchdown and with just a 17.1% GWC. And Saquon Barkley -- who lit up the No. 24 DVOA Redskins run defense for 189 yards on 22 carries on the day -- was not ready to slow down. He started the Giants' next drive with a 20-yard carry, spinning away from a tackle at midfield and rumbling all the way to the Redskins' 41-yard line.

Barkley spun away from another tackle on the ensuing first down, but he couldn't escape another handful of Redskins defenders in the Giants backfield. Jones threw incomplete to Golden Tate, unable to put any zip on a pass as the Redskins blitz forced him to backpedal out of the pocket. Head coach Pat Shurmur called the right play in a screen pass against another Redskins blitz, but Barkley's 8-yard gain left the team in a fourth-and-4 on the Redskins' 35-yard line. Kicker Aldrick Rosas had converted on seven of his eight career field goal attempts from 50-plus yards, but he never came close on this 53-yard attempt, hooking the kick 20 yards left of the left upright.

The Redskins' return to offense was short-lived. Keenum threw a pair of screen passes to receiving back Chris Thompson, and the Giants defense read both of them and dropped them for a combined loss of 7 yards. The resulting third-and-17 is a down-and-distance that few quarterbacks -- Garoppolo aside, evidently -- would have realistic chances to convert. But Keenum looked like the backup he is on the play, scrambling out past the line of scrimmage and back before throwing an illegal forward pass that fell incomplete. The Redskins punted and the Giants regained control on their own 13-yard line with 9:30 left in the quarter.

Jones started that next drive with off-target incompletions intended for Kaden Smith and Tate, but on third-and-10, Jones delivered a perfect deep ball that Tate elevated and caught over the top of cornerback Aaron Colvin for 32 yards. That put the ball near midfield, but the Giants never got much closer. Barkley rushed for just 3 and 1 yards on first and second down, and then Jones managed just 2 yards on a scramble before former Giants safety Landon Collins punched the ball loose. Offensive lineman Kevin Zeitler recovered the fumble, but with a fourth-and-9 still in their own territory, the Giants were forced to punt.

With just under six and a half minutes left, the Redskins still had time to erase their touchdown deficit. But they were in a tough spot, pinned back on their 1-yard line. Keenum threw the ball away and out of bounds on first down. He threw short to Peterson on second down. And then on third down, still on just the 2-yard line, Keenum stood calmly as the pass rush approached him in the back of the end zone and delivered a perfectly lofted pass to rookie slot receiver Steven Sims.

Now with room to breathe, Keenum continued to open it up. On second-and-13, he hit tight end Jeremy Sprinkle for 8 yards. On third-and-5, he spun, rolled left away from pressure from the pocket, and floated a pass 22 yards down the left sideline. Backup tight end Hale Hentges, fresh off the first touchdown of his career, had just enough time to spin back to the inside, dive, and secure the catch.

That completion kept the drive alive and moved the Redskins into Giants territory. They entered field goal range when Keenum hit McLaurin for 15 yards in the middle of field, with both the quarterback and the receiver absorbing big hits. On the other side of the two-minute warning, Keenum found his third rookie wideout, Kelvin Harmon, for 7 yards, setting up a third-and-1 at the Giants' 15-yard line. Keenum took that snap from shotgun, telegraphing the pass but completing it anyway thanks to McLaurin's incredible hang time along the right sideline, confirmed as a catch upon review.

Thompson took a surprise carry on the ensuing first down, weaving through the line and out of bounds at the Giants' 3-yard line. That set up a second-and-3, but that became third-and-3 and then fourth-and-3 when Keenum had a pass to Harmon deflected and then threw too wide for Sims. He missed on fourth down too, but it was glaringly obvious that Corey Ballentine had impeded Sims' route. The defensive pass interference penalty gave the Redskins a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, and with 37 seconds still remaining, a touchdown was practically a formality. Keenum got it out of the way with a 1-yard touchdown scramble on first down, tying the game and forcing overtime after Jones failed to cover the necessary ground to take a field goal attempt in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.

The Giants did win the coin toss in overtime, and they had better offensive luck with more time to work with -- after a fourth-quarter swoon of a -32.5% offensive DVOA, they rebounded closer to their early-game standard (69.1% DVOA in the first three quarters) with a 33.1% DVOA in overtime. They started their drive there with a 3-yard Barkley run and Jones incompletion, thrown on the run and behind his tight end Smith. But on third down, Jones delivered a strike to Sterling Shepard, waiting in a hole in the Redskins' defensive zone for a 23-yard reception. The put the Giants in Redskins territory, and they slowly crept toward the end zone from there. Barkley ran for 8 and then 3 yards and a new first down. Jones completed a quick pass to Shepard in the middle of the field. Barkley powered forward for another 6 yards and Giants first down and then added 12 more, stopping abruptly and then bouncing to the outside and eventual the right out-of-bounds. That put the Giants at the Redskins' 3-yard line. It took two more plays from there, but Jones finished the overtime on its first possession with a touchdown pass to Smith, the former's fifth and the latter's second of the day.

In a game whose only real stakes came from its draft pick implications and evaluation of young quarterbacks, the Giants were no doubt thrilled to see Jones excel in general and in crunch time. This was actually the third game this season in which Jones threw four or more touchdowns. But that fantasy success overstates the overall quality of his play this season. Jones' -20.0% passing DVOA trails not only Kyler Murray (-4.3%) and Drew Lock (10.7%) from near the top of the draft but also Gardner Minshew (-5.8%) and Devlin Hodges (-14.7%) among late-round or undrafted rookies. Jones will need to make marked improvements to fulfill the Giants' wishes of him becoming their franchise quarterback.

Assuming the ankle sprain ended his season, Haskins finished the year as the least efficient of the prominent rookie passers (-44.5% DVOA). But he did at least close the season strong, producing a 44.3% DVOA in his final two starts before the injury ended his year early. And importantly from a team-building perspective, this loss put the Redskins in the driver's seat for the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft and chance to draft pass-rusher Chase Young, this year's top non-quarterback prospect.

Bengals at Dolphins

After their winless first halves of the season, this Bengals-Dolphins matchup looked like it might decide who earned the first pick in the 2020 draft. But since then, the Dolphins have rattled off three wins to take some spice out of a matchup with no other apparent intrigue. To drub up interest, the Bengals must have decided they needed to author one of the craziest comeback efforts in the NFL all season.

The term "comeback" really understates things. The Dolphins scored touchdowns on their first two possessions to build a quick 14-0 lead, which ballooned to 35-12 after rookie running back Myles Gaskin ran in his first career touchdown with 11:16 left in the fourth quarter. At that point, the Bengals maintained a miniscule 0.3% chance to win, and that GWC remained under 1.0% as they scored a touchdown on an 8-yard Andy Dalton-to-C.J. Uzomah pass to make the score 35-19 with 6:15 left. It was still below 1.0% even after they scored a touchdown on a 3-yard Dalton-to-Tyler Boyd pass to make the score 35-27 -- after a successful two-point conversion -- with 29 seconds left. But then, the Bengals pulled off the impossible. They successfully recovered an onside kick. Randy Bullock's dribble kick made the high bounce at the perfect time, allowing Jordan Evans to reach and elevate to recover the attempt despite the lack of a running start.

Even that miracle left the Bengals with just 28 seconds to move the ball 54 yards for a touchdown, good for a 2.4% GWC. But after an incompletion to tight end Tyler Eifert, Dalton unleashed a throw that Boyd leapt and caught for 29 yards in the middle of the field.

The Bengals were out of timeouts, but they hustled up to the line for Dalton to spike the ball with three seconds remaining -- made possible by Boyd's gritty effort to hobble off the field after an injury, avoiding an official stoppage and 10-second runoff that would have ended the game. That left Dalton with just one more attempt to cover the remaining 25 yards to score. The Dolphins dropped nearly their entire team into coverage in the end zone, but Dalton casually scanned the field and aired one out. The 6-foot-6 Eifert was well-positioned, and he elevated and brought down the reception as time expired.

That still left the Bengals down two points, but they weren't quite out of miracles. Dalton dropped back for a pass, but after a couple of seconds and with no one open, he rolled right and turned on the jets, running past the right pylon before a Dolphins defender could reach him and stop him short.

Over the course of 30 seconds, the Bengals had improved from a 0.3% GWC to 45.2%. And even though they lost the overtime coin toss, they had multiple opportunities to complete the comeback in extra time. They earned a reprieve when Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki dropped a third-and-2 pass that would have advanced the Dolphins to the Bengals' 30-yard line and into field goal range

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor made a terrible decision to punt on fourth-and-1 from his 14-yard line, sacrificing 16.4% GWC compared to a run. But the earned a reprieve from that as well as Ryan Fitzpatrick took a sack and the Dolphins offense lost 10 yards on their ensuing possession. But the Bengals started their next possession with a false start penalty, which put them in a first-and-15 that 6- and 3-yard Joe Mixon carries couldn't overcome. Dolphins cornerback Nik Needham dove and deflected a would-be first-down pass to John Ross, and then Taylor erred again, punting on a fouth-and-6 from his 40-yard line and sacrificing 7.0% GWC from a pass.

Those bad decisions finally caught up with the Bengals in the final three minutes of overtime. Fitzpatrick converted a third-and-10 with a 15-yard jump ball that Isaiah Ford secured over defender B.W. Webb. He followed that two plays later with a 14-yard quick strike to Gesicki and then went back to Ford on a slant that he stretched to 28 yards with hard running and a broken tackle. That put the Dolphins all the way to the Bengals' 14-yard line, within chip shot range for kicker Jason Sanders. And after a handful of kneels to bring the clock to four seconds, Sanders converted that 37-yard attempt, handing the Dolphins their fourth win of the season and the craziest of the weekend.

The Dolphins' apparently intentional decision to tank this season couldn't keep up with the Bengals' accidental tank, but they likely don't feel too bad for their four-win season and almost certain resulting top-five draft pick. The Dolphins also have 13 other 2020 draft picks as well as extra first- and second-round picks in the 2021 draft thanks to myriad trades. They will be well-positioned to rebuild their roster assuming they can find a franchise quarterback, and first-year head coach Brian Flores showcased coach-of-the-year talent by leading this year's motley crew to its eventual four wins.

Beyond just the bad decisions, the Bengals offense couldn't maintain their fourth-quarter outburst of 14.6% offensive DVOA. Their -97.4% overtime DVOA was much closer to their -52.9% number from the first three quarters. But Taylor may have the last laugh, assuming he can hold onto his coaching job after a one-win season. This loss locked up the Bengals No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, a selection they almost certainly will use on Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow out of LSU.

Comments

10 comments, Last at 24 Dec 2019, 6:04pm

1 Brady Nails

After the Bills took a 17-13 lead with a little over 22 minutes left in the game, Brady went 8-for-8 for 93 yards and the two-point conversion. He also threw a heck of a block in the open field. Swan song or phoenix rising?
Small error: 'Tom Brady found undrafted rookie receiver Jakobi Meyers for an 11-yard reception that Meyers held onto despite an immediate hit from cornerback J.C. Jackson. And then on third-and-5, Burkhead caught a short pass, evaded an attempted tackle by Jackson...'
The only place Meyers is getting hit by J.C. Jackson is in practice as Jackson is a Pats DB (which you note correctly later in the review). I think you might mean Kevin Johnson.

10 He Should Be Fined

But by the team rather than the league. The league suggests that it wants teams to handle such things (with the implication being that if they don't, there'll be consequences).

“The Competition Committee deprecates feigning injuries, with subsequent withdrawal, to obtain a timeout without penalty. Coaches are urged to cooperate in discouraging this practice.”

By the letter of the law, Edelman wasn't exactly in violation, at least in terms of intent. The goal wasn't to get an injury TO, which was of no benefit to the Pats at that point (rather the opposite). It was a flop, pure and simple, to avoid the PI penalty. I'd say that receivers do similar things dozens of times every game. Edelman took it to an extreme by acting like he'd been hit with cannonball. It backfired on him and ended up costing the Pats by keeping their best receiver off the field for a significant length of time. 

Would have been funny if he ended up in the protocol. He probably has so much brain damage at this point that you could justifiably put him there at any point in time.

4 "Bengals head coach Zac…

"Bengals head coach Zac Taylor made a terrible decision to punt on fourth-and-1 from his 14-yard line, sacrificing 16.4% GWC compared to a run." What? If your calculator is saying punting from your own 14 in a tie game is a terrible decision, there's something wrong with the calculator. I don't understand how the sentence I quoted could be written without recognizing that that just doesn't make any sense. I'm guessing the GWC calculator is treating a tie as equivalent to a loss and that's the source of the problem.

6 No, I believe a tie is…

No, I believe a tie is considered 50% of a win in the GWC simulator. There was just a strong chance that Miami would field the punt and come down and score to win the game. Which they did, but not on that next drive, rather on the drive after that.

8 If you don't punt and fail…

If you don't punt and fail to pick up the fourth down, you've essentially handed the game to Miami. Your chances of winning would be well below 5%. And if you do pick it up... You are probably still stuck behind your own 20, a long way away from FG range. Going for it there is extremely high risk versus pretty small reward. I think the calculator must have something wrong with if it's saying punting there is a terrible decision.

9 That number is so non…

That number is so non-intuitive, I'd love to see the math behind it.  I wonder what were the Bengals chances of getting a win-lose-tie if they go for it on 4th down?  (pretty small on the win-tie part I expect ... so small that it's difficult to believe the chance was much better than the 16.3% they lost by punting).  How did the punt shift that exactly? (because it sure seems like the tie part should go way up, even if the win-lose parts both went down)